Children Naturally Engage in Math-Related Play

When given the time for free play, young children naturally use math as they explore. One group of researchers observed 4 and 5-year-olds during free play at daycare. They found that almost half of children’s play involved math-related activities. Children explored shapes and patterns. One girl created a pattern with red and yellow beads while making a necklace. They compared the size of their block towers (“Mine is bigger!”). They counted. They also explored spatial relationships, such as where to place furniture inside a dollhouse. And interestingly, children incorporated math into their play without any direction from an adult.

What about younger children? Even babies are learning primitive math concepts as they play and explore. They learn about geometry and spatial relationships when they use their hands and mouth to explore objects. If you put one toy in a box, infants will stop searching after they get it. But if you put two toys in a box, infants will search again after they find the first toy. The only way they could do this is if they remember that two things went into the box. They are showing an early understanding of number concepts.

As a toddler stacks one block on top of another or nests cups, he is learning about spatial relationships. Can you think of other examples of how young children use math as they play?

  • Free play
    is spontaneous, unstructured play that is child-directed
    Guided play
    is like free play, in that it's focused on what the child is interested in. But unlike free play, an adult facilitates a playful learning experience